Body Image Is Effecting Public Health | Omega

Celebrated media literacy advocate Jean Kilbourne issues a call to action to support women and families by taking up body image, eating disorders, and nutrition as public health issues. 

Many mainstream media ads for food and diet products normalize shame, guilt, bingeing, and purging. Eating has become divorced from hunger and nutrition in our culture. It’s difficult to find women, especially young women, who have really healthy attitudes toward food and their bodies.

My own daughter has struggled with these issues. When she was a child, I did all the things I advise people to do. I talked with her very openly about body image, sex and sexuality, media literacy—everything! I created a safe place for her to ask me anything. She often attended my lectures.

She was a very happy, confident, radiant little girl. But when she hit adolescence, she experienced the drop in self-confidence that so many girls experience at that time.  

This was eye-opening for me. I never thought that I was going to be able to protect her entirely from the culture, but I felt there couldn’t be a child better educated about these issues and to watch her self-esteem plummet was really awful. I am happy to say that she is fine now and is doing very important work as a therapist for women who have experienced violence in their lives.

This is why I say these are public health issues that affect all of us. We can’t save our children child by child, house by house. We have to change the environment in which we raise our children, because it is a toxic cultural environment. I raised my daughter in a culture that was hostile to everything I wanted for her. All of the popular messages about sex, alcohol, drugs, and appearance were harmful, and I had to fight them every step of the way. As parents, we can’t do this alone.

An example of a successful public health approach is the changed attitudes toward smoking and the tobacco industry. The rates of young people smoking have dropped dramatically from a high of about 50% to below 18% today. Treating smoking as a public health issue made it more difficult for kids to purchase cigarettes, made them very expensive, and used good counter-advertising. Parents might have said, “Don’t smoke,” but if all the kids’ friends are smoking and there are cheap cigarettes everywhere, it’s most often a losing battle.

Tobacco is a simple issue compared to food, because it isn’t necessary and it kills over half of its users. Obviously we need food every day to live. Even so, food is a public health concern. Not just eating disorders, but also industrialized and processed food. Our taste buds are screwed up from the time we’re infants. If you grow up drinking Coke, water’s going to be boring. Healthy food doesn’t taste very good if one is used to junk food and great amounts of salt, fat, and sugar. But it is possible to “re-educate” one’s taste buds and to make healthy food more available for everyone.

It is great that today there are so many movements and resources around these issues, for parents, but also for everyone in the community, to support our kids. We must join together to create an environment that is healthier and safer for all children.

© 2016 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

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